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17 October 2017updated 18 Oct 2017 1:42pm

The Harvey Weinstein allegations are monstrous. But it’s not just monsters who harass women

How many men have read the news this last week and reassured themselves – come on, I'm not as bad as that guy?

By Helen Lewis

It was initially very hard to say anything bad about Harvey Weinstein. He was protected by battalions of lawyers and his formidable status as a Hollywood power-broker. In those circumstances, a kind of collective delusion took over. That’s just what Harvey does. You don’t have to do what he wants; just don’t say explicitly “no”. And the flippant response, somehow recasting these frightened, coerced women as ungrateful and insufficiently ambitious: hey, I would do a lot more than that to become a movie star! 

It is now very easy to say something bad about Harvey Weinstein. The trickle of stories has become a torrent; he’s left his company, which is now dissolving; his brother has virtually disowned him; and a lot of actors are putting all that practice they got making Gracious Loser Face at the Oscars into showing how shocked – shocked! – they are to hear these rumours for the very absolutely completely first time ever. 

But if Weinstein is now the bogeyman – the pure embodiment of a particular kind of evil – that brings its own dangers. One of the bleakest things I’ve read recently was the news that group therapy sessions in prisons for sexual offenders may increase reoffending. When you put a bunch of rapists together, the message that some take away is this: oh, I’m not so deviant after all. And anyway, that guy is worse. “Group treatment may ‘normalise’ individuals’ behaviour: when stories are shared, their behaviour may not be seen as wrong or different,” the Ministry of Justice report found.

The response to the Weinstein coverage has borne this out. Over the last week, my phone has lit up with female journalists silently screaming: have you seen him decrying Weinstein? The hypocrite! 

In private, there has been a cathartic outpouring of Bastards We Have Known. The colleague who texted a friend of mine, Ros Urwin of the Standard, promising that “before I die, I will kiss every freckle on your lips”. The man who told my colleague Amelia Tait that she’d have to have sex to get ahead. The sub-editor who stalked a junior member of his team, turning up outside restaurants she was at with her boyfriend. The magazine journalist who developed an obsession with a female colleague and put her on late shifts to ruin her social life. The arts journalist who would take out new colleagues for a “welcome drink” at his London club – where they’d discover he had a room booked upstairs. The guy who put his hands down a colleague’s trousers at the Christmas party. More than one man in journalism, feeling spurned, has taken to ringing his love interest’s doorbell late at night. 

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A few things to note: no, I’m not naming names. These aren’t my stories to tell, and I don’t have proof – not the kind that would satisfy a libel lawyer. But I believe the women involved, as the alternative explanation is that there is a great wave of fantasists working in the British media, and all their lies independently converge on the same set of tropes. An older man with more power, a younger, newer colleague who is unsure of the rules of the workplace, or even just the rules of the new world of journalism she (or sometimes he) has just entered. Sexual harassment is about status, in the same way rape is about power. Now I’m in my 30s, it’s tempting to think the problem is solved, rather than merely diminished from a generation ago, when a newspaper editor could point to his secretary and say “I’d like to put my knob in you”. Then I talk to younger women and see that it’s not. I’ve just graduated from the target group. 

Second, most of the harassers I’ve heard about are still working in journalism. Forget Woody Allen’s preposterous warning against witch-hunts, unless witch-hunts involve discreetly paying off the witch or quietly moving the person who has been turned into a frog to another part of the building. The consequences are limited.

Third, this behaviour poisons everything it touches. In environments where a predator reigns, women are divided into the harassed and the ignored. “In so many cases, men who sexually harass women struggle to register the existence of those other women, the useless ones,” wrote journalist Marie Le Conte recently. “Some days you’re the tits, some days you’re the ghost; you really can’t win.”

I hope that social media campaigns like “#MeToo”– where women share their own experiences – can expose the sheer size of the problem. But it frustrates me that these conversations dwell so heavily on women’s actions and reactions without asking the hard questions of men. True bravery would be a wave of guys acknowledging their own record of shitty jokes, casual sexism, disbelief and apathy, even if only among themselves. #MeToo indeed.

Let’s focus on the real question: why did all these guys do it? I would lay blame on a culture where the script of “romance” often involves a pursuit, with an unwilling target eventually melted by the force of a man’s ardour. I’d blame a culture of entitlement, where some men think that they are owed women’s attention. I’d blame male-dominated office cultures, where a few loud arseholes can set the entire tone, and industries run by powerful men, and run on an endless supply of powerless women.

And I blame the Weinstein problem: the fact that many harassers see harassment as limited to grotesque abuses of power, whereas their own actions can be excused as merely a case of misread signals, inept attempts at seduction, harmless flirting. They hear the Weinstein stories and think: Oh, I’m not so deviant after all. And anyway, that guy is worse.

To give an example from my own life. Before university, I worked in a load of random, low-paid jobs. In one of them, the teenage me was alone in a vast room with my fiftysomething boss when he joked about a task only taking 15 minutes. “Mind you,” he added. “Fifteen minutes. That’s enough to get you pregnant.” That I can remember that single sentence now, half a lifetime later, might give you some idea of how profoundly uncomfortable it was, like the ground slipping suddenly beneath my feet. What comes next? A grab, a tussle, my surrender to get it over with? Or nothing at all, just a lingering feeling of disquiet, and my shame at joining the grisly pantomime that this was all good fun?  

This is why women “can’t take a joke”. It’s because we don’t know, can never know, if it is just a joke, or if the joke is just the first sign of something else – a warning sign we will later curse ourselves for ignoring. You know that twitchy quality that rabbits have? It’s because they know they are prey. Young women know they are too.

Yet funnily enough, I already know the response some will have to my story: chill out, snowflake, it’s not FGM, is it? Yes, on the creepy Richter scale, one tone-deaf comment is barely a tremor. But why do some people feel obliged to defend what is at best, unprofessional behaviour? Do they get equally exercised about the right to be repeatedly late, to miss crucial meetings, to turn up smelling of whisky? No, they don’t. So what principle are they really defending here? 

They want to preserve the status quo, the rules of the world as it is, where they know what they can and can’t get away with, where the line is drawn, where the ground doesn’t suddenly shift under their feet in a fleeting exchange between two people. Wouldn’t it be terrible, they say, if you couldn’t go to dinner with a member of the opposite sex without being on your guard? Yes, reply women, that would be terrible. Oh no, wait, wrong tense – it is.

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions